Arthritis is a painful inflammation and stiffness of the joint that can affect any joint in the body. This includes the elbow, shoulder or the 29 bones of the wrist, hand and fingers. Pain from arthritis can keep you from being able to do what you need to do and from activities you enjoy.

The most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis, post-traumatic arthritis (after an injury), and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease in which the smooth cartilage that covers the bone surfaces at the joints either is injured or wears over time.

A normal joint is made of two smooth, cartilage-covered bone surfaces that fit well together so that they glide when the bones move. If the smooth surfaces wear out, then they no longer fit together and arthritis develops. Injury, infection, gout, psoriasis, and other conditions can also cause arthritis.

All forms of arthritis can cause stiffness, swelling, pain, and deformity. Osteoarthritis sometimes causes bony nodules at the middle joint of the finger (Bouchard’s nodes) or at the end joint of the finger (Heberden’s nodes). Osteoarthritis at the basilar joint can cause swelling, a bump, and a deep, aching pain at the base of the thumb. Weakness of grip and pinch can make it hard to open a jar or turn a key for those with osteoarthritis.

In the shoulder, damage to the cartilage surfaces of the glenohumeral joint (the shoulder’s “ball-and-socket” structure) is the primary cause of shoulder arthritis. For many people, arthritis of the elbow can cause pain not only when they bend their elbow, but also when they straighten it, such as to carry a suitcase. The most common cause of arthritis of the elbow is rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis and injuries can also cause arthritis in the elbow joint.

The goals in treating osteoarthritis are to relieve pain and restore function. Treatment starts with making the correct diagnosis and then first line treatment with specialized supportive bracing. Anti-inflammatory medications can help, but only use under the advice of your doctor if needed longer than a few days. Cortisone injections are very effective even though they often have a bad public reputation. Injections can especially control arthritis symptoms in the hand and wrist for many months or years prior to needing surgery. It is very important to see a hand specialist if numbness, tingling, or radiating pain are occurring because nerve damage can occur if left untreated for a long time.

Most importantly, remember that an orthopedic surgeon, in this case a hand and upper extremity surgeon, is best able to properly diagnose and offer non-operative treatments prior to doing any surgery.